Heavenly Utah: Zion National Park and the Springdale Gateway
Heavenly Utah: Zion National Park and the Springdale Gateway
Growing up my parents took my sister and me on 1-3 week road trips every summer. I saw just about every state capital and college football stadium in the contiguous US. As you might imagine, I also saw a lot of national parks. The one that forever held my imagination was Zion National Park in Utah.
Now, Utah is a magnificent state. I once went on a whitewater rafting trip down the Snake River and it was amazing. Traipsed through Bryce Canyon and Arches National Parks and they were…amazing. I should break out my thesaurus yet amazing pretty much covers it. But there was something about Zion.
I’ve dreamed of going back for about twenty-five years now. (How I wish I had not just done that math…) I don’t know what it was about the place: the towering walls, the colors on those walls, the green amongst the desert backdrop. Actually, that last is probably a big part of it: I love me some green trees. And after the sandstone meadows of Arches and Bryce, I was probably ready for something nourishing. I remember a hike I took with my dad where the trees positively hugged us on either side for a mile straight and I just felt, well, blessed.
About a year ago I heard about the Narrows hike and I quickly added this hike to my bucket list. So when I decided a few months ago to finally start traveling, what was the first big trip I planned? Zion National Park. Now that I’ve done it, I’m pretty sure I’m going to move and/or retire there, or just buy a B&B and make a life of it. (Alas, I will probably say this about every place I visit so I haven’t checked Zillow yet. Yet.)
I spent three days in the area, two immersing myself in the park and three evenings putzing around Springdale, Zion’s gateway town. I’ll get to the details of my bucket-list-checking hikes in future posts but for now I just want to highlight some tips to get around the park as easily as possible. And let you know where I ate in Springdale. (Who likes Thai food? I’m a sucker for some green curry.)
I went in the height of high season and I can certainly recommend you do not go in high season. But I did learn some things:
— The park is always open but shuttle service begins at 6 AM. Use the shuttle service as some areas are not open to unofficial vehicles and you’ll have to either walk it or hop on a bus anyhow. Also, it’s $30 for a car and $15 for a pedestrian, good for 7 days. Now if you have a family or there’s a couple of you, pay the car fee as peds are individually charged. Thing is, the lot fills up fast and you have to start hunting for a space somewhere…anywhere… Which brings me to:
My first morning I arrived before 7:30 thinking I was doing all right. The shuttle line inside the park already looked like this:
The next morning I got there thirty minutes earlier and waited thirty minutes less for the bus. (Still waited 20 minutes though. This place is popular.)
Check out the different trails offered, how long they take and what shuttle stop will take you there. (There’s a handy map on the wall of the shuttle.) Since Zion is so well visited, the powers-that-be are toying with different ideas about how to cut down congestion and overcrowding. One idea is to issue permits for the most popular hikes (like the Narrows and Angel’s Landing) or make these reservation-only. I hate these ideas but I get it. Some of the overcrowding is pushing hikers to make their own paths (just say no, people, bad for so many reasons) or causing severe erosion on official trails. Point is, stay on path and stay informed. This season will probably remain free but next summer will see changes. (Another reason to go in spring or fall!)
— There are two parts to Zion: the Kolob Canyon area and Zion National Park proper. The shuttle service, with its nine stops only covers a portion of the latter but it does cover a lot of good trails and it gets you around. It starts by the visitors center, goes to the museum (stop #2), then hits several big areas including the Zion Lodge (that you need to book almost a year in advance, by the way) and ends at the Temple of Sinawava. I drove through the eastern Kolob side but spent the majority of my time in the Park proper.
— If you are doing it solo, get there at six and park in Sprindale, right by the entrance for free. Parking next to the park will cost you $20. Park in Springdale and ride the free shuttle, and then go in and take the Zion shuttle. Easy peasy. FYI the Springdale shuttle has several stops and a decent amount of free parking throughout the town but doesn’t start running until 7-715. So if you’re early enough, get an extra couple of hundred steps in and park at the far end. You can see the park from the first shuttle stop.
— I actually stayed in Hurricane, UT, about a half-hour drive from Springdale. I highly recommend this as it was about $35 cheaper a night and there are ample accommodations. Also, the sunrises and sundowns were freaking gorgeous on the drives. The Days Inn treated me quite well: microwave/fridge in room plus a pool/hot tub to relax in after a killer hike. Not luxury but not bad either. And the town is a “normal” town; Springdale gas was 20 cents higher than gas in Hurricane. Rude.
This is the route you take to get to the Narrows. There are pretty much two types of people on this walk: those enjoying the easiest hike in Zion or those eager to start their Narrows trek. My advice? Even if you are the latter, take a minute to enjoy this jaunt. It’s peaceful and green and there are fatty squirrels everywhere. (Seriously, they are huge. Like university squirrels on steroids, not afraid of humans and the size of groundhogs. Don’t feed them; they don’t need it and they will probably take at least a finger from you.)
Anyhow, Riverside is lovely. There’s little elevation change and it’s mostly paved. Fine for strollers and probably alright for some heartier wheelchairs. It’s a mile both ways but you can turn around whenever. It’s shaded just about the entire way as one side is the canyon wall and the other full of dappling trees. You can even step off the sidewalk and splash around in the Virgin River, that unassuming trickle that somehow made a heavenly canyon…
Speaking of the Virgin River. Crystal clear and cool all day long, it flows fast and but not fierce at all. This hike was a lot of fun: a learning experience to say the least and not completely what I was expecting. Yet somehow totally what I wanted. I stepped into the river around 845 in the morning and turned around about 1215. It didn’t take long to get used to the coldness of the water, probably because I was concentrating on not falling on my not-so-proverbial butt. (Spoiler alert: I did not fall down. So. Proud.) I will say, bring a hat because at some point, the sun will scorch. It was a strange feeling coming back out and feeling my scalp burn while my toes were almost numb with cold.
This is a hike that is subject to flash flooding, especially during the summer monsoon season. The park is very proactive about closing off or strongly recommending you don’t go. But FYI, if you do go after the threat has passed know the water will be kind of murky for a while as the sediment flows out of the canyon. I got really lucky; I went on a Monday, and the hike was closed on Tuesday and frowned upon Wednesday. Doubt I would have gotten this pic on Wednesday:
Perhaps the most picturesque area of Zion – probably why there is a huge picnic area built here. The river runs wide through a small valley, winding and bending and leaving green glory in its wake. I got to this area a bit before 8 in the morning and the sunlight was just beginning to wake everything up. There’s a bridge over the river I would recommend standing on and just being, like, grateful for being alive or something. Serenity doesn’t cut it, my friend.
This was one of those hikes I knew I had to do because I call myself a hiker. However! I am from Oklahoma, elevation 2000 with mountains that only rise another 2000 ft. Angel’s starts at around 6000 and it’s 2 1/2 miles. It’s good it commences at the gorgeous Grotto because the trail ascended (unironically) into hell.
There’s really two parts: up to Scout’s Lookout, then on to Angel’s Landing. The first is a paved, normal (if steep and slightly tough) hike to great views of the canyon. The second is a somewhat scary, often scarier, 30% incline with chains to hold onto. Still crazy to me how many people were doing this hike. Kids. Pregnant women. Teens in flip-flops. (That last is another reason the park may be switching to permits for this hike. They survive but it’s only because they have no fear of death. I almost remember having no fear of death.)
Having done it, I’m way proud of myself but I’m not going to lie: being outpaced by some chick that’s six-months pregnant was not one of my finer moments. Though, she may have just been far more motivated than I was to get the heck off that mountain. But don’t take the shorty kids, guys. There are some drops that aren’t hard but are twice their height. Just wait until they’re ten or something.
Another easier trail but not handicap-accessible in the least. Well, if you are a para-athlete, you got this, but otherwise someone’s going to have to push you up. It’s short but it’s steep; it’s paved but there are a few stairs.
Disclaimer: if you have seen pics of this place, those pictures were probably taken in the spring or after some sort of constant fall rains. I won’t say I was disappointed because it was beautiful, it just wasn’t what I expected. I met a mother/daughter duo at the Rock and we shared our disillusionment. In my head, I was picturing huge ferns hanging from rocky outcroppings and several little stream-like water falls. What I got was a misty dripping and something that looked more like moss until you looked closer. But! Turn around and you see this and it’s everything. It’s Zion.
What makes this rock, and lots of others in the park, weep is the porous sandstone. The rain and runoff seeps in and oozes back out wherever it can. It’s almost sweating in places; in fact the afternoons are the best time to go looking for chance waterfalls because the water is evaporating at the highest rate.
I didn’t do this hike. It is apparently more strenuous than Angel’s Landing mostly because it is longer. I don’t think there are chains to cling to though. The view is pretty much the same from the pics I looked at though I think you get to see the outside of the canyon. I’ll do this one when I come back. =) There are other hikes I did not do, namely Emerald Pools (by the Angel’s trailhead). It’s about a mile I believe and features two pools to stare at but not dip your feet though you can get in the river when you’re back in the Grotto.
Springdale is adorable and everything you want in a well-placed tourist town. Basically one long road of cute stores, curb appeal and flirty restaurants, it wasn’t hard to fill up a couple of evenings here. There are galleries of art, jewelry stores and lots of adventure companies but I mostly ate, window-shopped and ate some more. Oh how I love traveling…
Not as western as the name suggests. Though there was plenty of meaty dishes, I had no trouble finding a few vegetarian options to choose from. (I’m actually a pescatarian but wanted a big meal and fish meals are not always gorgers.) I also had a hard time narrowing down the beer I wanted to order. So I got two.
The veggie burrito is delicious and filled my tummy full. Beers didn’t hurt either. Both locally brewed, I chose the Wasatch Ghostrider White IPA and an organic amber ale that was not amber in color but was wonderfully full-bodied nonetheless. Makes me wonder if they dye beer. Weird.
Please go corporate and open one of these in OKC. Not only was it the cutest little dining experience but the organic green curry with shrimp was freakin’ delectable. Not too thick, great amount of spice, smelled like heaven… I also had the vegan spring rolls that came with a great sauce and were gone too quickly. There are a ton of veggie options here and there are also vegan curry dishes. And did I mention how cute it was?
Okay, so I learned something here. I don’t think I like gelato. Should have known when I read that it had more sugar and less butter cream than ice cream but I thought, when on holiday… It may be that I don’t like spumoni as I had also never tried spumoni. Not saying I didn’t finish it with a happy heart, just saying I should have gotten the scoop of vanilla. But that’s so…vanilla.
I’ll be posting about my two big hikes (and all my foodie treats!) in more detail soon but that’s my overview of the Zion portion of my trip out west. So glad I went back. Cannot wait to go again!